Groveling for Pearls

Everybody’s an expert. This is especially true in the world of literature. The self-appointed literary savant has a wide range of advice they can give. An objection can be as small as “Avoid dangling participles” and as grave as “I really hated the main character.”

You want someone else to read what you’ve done—or what’s the point? You may turn to other members of your book club, perhaps someone who recently made several interesting observations about a Jonathan Lethem novel. You may be responding to a few cryptic words in an agent’s standard boilerplate rejection. My point is, is the person handing out the advice really qualified to do that?

If you are like a lot of writers, you are so thrilled someone bothered to say anything about your writing, you turn into a sniveling slave of their opinion. You tear apart what you’ve done in order to implement their suggestions. You may throw out really good material—because it seems like part of the problem they raised. You write in new stuff that, if you stood back and regarded it with a cold eye, you should realize is second-rate—because its impulse came not from within you but from someone else. 

I happen to be an expert at handing out editing advice, and I say: keep your elbows up to protect your work. Start off by saying: I’m not going to change a thing. As with any other endeavor in life, do your due diligence. Would you pay an extra $10,000 just because Larry Contractor was the first guy who hustled over to your house to give a bid? Get other opinions and sift through them. If you think a point that your first critic raised has validity, ask your second and third person what they think about the point in question. If they look at you like that first critic must have flown in from Mars to say something like that, well, maybe you were right all along—and the critic was wrong. 

Exercise: Don’t rush into revision. If the suggested fix is going to take you any time at all, let the advice percolate for a while. Look over the note a few more times. Did the person bother to provide any specifics to help you make a significant change? Don’t be tough on yourself, be tough on the critic. After all, aren’t you the one who has to do all the work?

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don't mind.” —Dr. Seuss

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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